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Gin Fizz

by Eric Brittingham



When Alexander Quillen’s grandmother told him she expected him to get up first thing in the morning on the first Monday of his summer vacation to help her paint her backyard fence and three-car garage, he couldn’t believe she was serious. Alex had made other plans. Or more truthfully, he’d planned to have no plans. He’d spent the final weeks of the sixth grade imagining that his summer reward for high grades and hard work would be a hot and humid haze of irresponsible sameness, with no discernable distinction between any given weekday and a typical weekend. If planning were necessary, he would say he planned to sleep and eat and perhaps to read (but only comic books and newspaper funny pages) and perhaps to watch television (cartoons and old sit-coms). Of course, he should have known that his grandmother was quite serious and would have no sympathy for such unproductive indulgence. After all, even the self-discipline his mother exhibited during the school year to rise before dawn each weekday morning failed to earn her a weekend reprieve in the eyes of his grandmother, who instead despaired that “laying abed clear to eight or nine o’clock of a morning” revealed in her daughter a dreadful moral failing.

And he should have remembered that he’d promised long ago to help repaint the fence and garage that bisected his grandmother’s backyard. This was no minor chore. The fifty-foot-long fence extended from the neighbor’s property line to join the back of the open-bay garage, which was turned around backwards so the bays opened away from the house and toward the soybean field at the edge of the yard. The sun shone year-round on both the fence and the garage walls, and as a result they required repainting about every five years. It was a job that Alex’s grandmother insisted on doing herself because the painters in the area had been former associates of the late Mr. Charles Quillen and so were persona non grata to his grandmother.

She did require assistance, however, and this supporting role had always been played by Alex’s mother. Although she never expressed any particular excitement about the prospect of a multi-day painting project, neither did his mother ever express an unkind thought about it within Alex’s hearing, and Alex had grown up thinking of the periodic fence-painting operation as something like a holiday. When the fence and back garage had last been painted five summers earlier in 1975, a younger Alex had tried his best to take part, helping with things like fetching water to drink and cleaning up drips, and he’d made his grandmother promise to let him help the next time the fence would need painting. She had in fact promised, with his mother adding dryly that she would be quite willing to hand over this grave responsibility to her son.

When his grandmother reminded him of this commitment, the now twelve-year-old Alex had to admit he’d forgotten all about it, but rather than argue the point, he’d instead put her off, saying he wanted at least a week of rest after what he proclaimed to have been a most strenuous academic year. After that, however, he didn’t even bother with excuses. Each time she would bring it up, he’d shrug and suggest they do it later. At first, she fussed a bit and complained about his laziness, but with his mother busy for several weeks teaching summer school, his grandmother was loath to start the project without some assurance of help. As the summer heat settled in that July, she set the project aside, but when August arrived, the act of turning the calendar seemed to rile her. She put her foot down—not metaphorically but in a literal, foot-stamping demonstration of her frustration—and she decreed a starting date for the project that following week. She wanted to get it done that summer, dag-nab-it, and she was done hearing his excuses.

“We’ll start the scraping and peeling early morning so we can get it done by noon. It ain’t no chore to be started with the mid-day sun beating down on you the whole time.” Alex demurred, noting the misfortune that, now that he was old enough to be helpful, he’d reached the age of requiring double-digit hours of sleep. She was unmoved by his protests. She repeated her schedule and left it at that.

The morning in question dawned, lightened, and began to burn more brightly with no Alex in sight, and she began without him, which he discovered at eleven-thirty as he sauntered through his neighbors’ backyards—his mother’s house was on the same side of the road as his grandmother’s and separated by only two neighbors—and he could see as he approached that she’d already worked her way down the fence line more than half-way. She’d scraped away the loose and flaking paint from its entire length on the side that faced the house, the easy side with the outward facing boards, and on the other side with the difficult angles of attached board she’d worked nearly to the gate-break that swung out from the section that met the garage. He was impressed with her determination and the quality of what she’d done, and the weight of shame and disappointment made his arms feel heavy pulling on his shoulders. He thought he would volunteer to do the garage in the afternoon, but his paper-thin level of maturity burned away when he came to stand across from her on the other side of the fence and she locked eyes with him through the slats just under the fence header. “Just sit yourself inside, boy, and I’ll be in directly to make your dinner.” Despite her anger—the sweat rolling down her reddened face revealed the effort she’d expended—she spoke to him the way she’d spoken to him when he was a little boy, when she would set him up in front of his cartoons with his TV tray in air-conditioned comfort. “I wonder if I could trouble you to mix up your own chocolate milk. And draw me out a glass of water with three ice cubes. If you would.” Alex didn’t say anything. He merely nodded, which she didn’t usually accept as an answer, but to extend his humiliation, she ignored his juvenile response, dropping her eyes and resuming her scraping.

After a quiet lunch, she said she was done for the day, that it was too hot to work anymore, and that he should “just go on home.” He didn’t even look at the fence as he ran from the yard. His mother had gotten home by then, and when he came in through the back door she was coming up from the basement with an empty laundry basket and said, “You’re back awful early.”

He didn’t want to talk about it. He sat down in the kitchen while his mother moved around the house, and he tried to understand why he was so angry. He knew he was in the wrong, more or less—as long you discount the notion that he was, after all, a kid on summer vacation. He figured he had every right to relax and not to have to do chores, to appreciate the freedom of being young, or so all the grown-ups would say when they got nostalgic and depressing and envious of his so-called freedom. He was only doing what they wanted him to do, he reasoned. He grew indignant. When his mother came back though the kitchen on her way somewhere else, he said, “What do we have to paint this stupid fence and garage for, anyway? Don’t they have people who do that? What do we have to do it for?”

She stopped and stared at him for a few long seconds. “So what happened?”

“She started without me. And then she’s all like, ‘It’s too late now, go home, it’s too hot anyway.’”

“I do wish she’d hire that job out.” His mother pulled out a chair at the kitchen table and settled in. “But I don’t think she ever will.”

She seemed to be validating his bitterness, so he asked indignantly, “Why not?”

“Because your Grampa was a painter, and she judges all of them by his standard. You know he had a little trouble with his drinking.” There was no humor in her eyes, no wistfulness, only her normal flat stare. “He was friends with all of them. All the painters and builders. He was 4-F during the war—you know what that means, right? He had a bad back, and the Army didn’t want him—so he got a lot of work in the war years and got to know all the other painters and builders around here. Your Gramma thinks to this day they all drink and carouse like your Grampa used to, and she won’t hire any of them. It doesn’t make much sense because none of those men work anymore. But it doesn’t matter. She’s set in her ways.”

He was pouting, building up a grievance against his grandmother, as well as the fence. Alex had a love-hate relationship with the fence. He loved it as a pretend outfield wall when he played baseball in her backyard, but he hated that it was in the way for just about any other kind of play. It was an obstacle, an eye-sore that cut her yard in half for no obvious reason. “I wish we could just tear it all down. Her and her stupid fence. How about if we just get rid of it?”

His mother frowned, and her eyes hardened. He was surprised. She usually supported or at least was amused by these little frustrated outbursts about his grandmother’s obsessions and interests. “You don’t know the story of that fence and garage. Do you?”

He shrugged, then shook his head. His grandmother had never told him anything about the history of the house, except for occasionally saying, “I wish they’d built it a little better, but anyway, the roof don’t leak.”

His mother said the house had been his grandparents’ first home together, built from a standard plan offered by a local builder back in 1943. Dee had wanted a garage that was bigger than the single-car building in the plan, but the builder wouldn’t compromise, and he asked too much for the customization. So, as a surprise, Charlie called in all his debts and favors and arranged to have a big new open-ended three-slot garage with an attached fence built in the back, with a new extension to the driveway dug out and stone put down—all of it done by his buddies in the week while they were away on their honeymoon in Atlantic City.

“That was back when things were still okay with the two of them.” His mother was staring off at something, nothing, just looking into her memories. “Daddy was drinking then. He always drank, but not like later.”

Alex didn’t know much about his grandfather. Neither woman wanted to talk about him, and they didn’t seem to miss him all that much, as if he’d been something they’d had to live with for many years that had simply been removed one day, like the food and fuel rations during the war years or a long spell of foul weather that had passed. “Was Grampa that bad?”

“He wasn’t easy.” She took a breath and looked at him again, a smile lifting her mouth as if remembering it was Alex she was talking to. “Your Gramma, she’d fuss and fume at him about his drinking. It didn’t help. Might have made it worse.” She dropped her eyes for a moment and shook her head. “For your Grampa, life was just too much to handle. I think he thought maybe your Gramma was strong enough to handle it for both of them.” Her eyes were smiling again. “So, the fence and the garage, they were a gift—really a wedding present from your Grampa to your Gramma. So that’s part of the reason they might be special to her. It may be just about the only thing he ever gave her that she really wanted.” On saying this, she frowned for a moment, and her eyes darkened. She looked at Alex, as if to see if he was still paying attention. He was, but he hadn’t heard what she’d said. That is, he’d heard her words, but he’d not understood her accidental meaning. She rose from her chair. “Anyway, it means more to her than just a fence and a garage. That’s the point,” she said, rubbing his shoulder on her way back to the basement.


That evening, after supper, when the orange sun had dropped behind the houses across the road, Alex got permission from his mother to play in the yard while she watched television in the living room. He knew his grandmother would be doing the same thing in her living room, and so he snuck out of his mother’s yard and along the edge of the soybean field to his grandmother’s backyard figuring he’d be sure to have the back garage all to himself. There were several relics of his grandfather’s life in there. Hung on the south wall was his wooden ladder, splotched and spackled with spilled paint. Several slats of leftover press-board paneling lay across the rafters. Folded against the back wall were a pair of metal-framed canvas-seated lawn chairs. He pulled one of these down and unfolded it and sat in the mouth of the middle bay of the open garage, looking eastward over untold acres of soybean field and beyond that to the forest of elm and oak trees that lined a distant road. The night was coming on, and from where Alex sat it wasn’t a sunset, but instead it looked as if the darkness was rising in the east, the emptiness of deep space at the tops of the trees deepening and pushing the bruised border of the daytime sky over and behind the garage. Stars were flickering awake by degrees, no moon was out, and no safety lights had yet turned on as Alex sat in the gloom with the things his grandfather had left behind after he drank himself to death years before, back when his mother had been much younger than he was then, only eight or nine, still a little girl.

Until that day he’d not given much thought to what it meant to be a man named Quillen in this family, but as he reflected on the history lesson his mother had given him that day, he found there was little to recommend them. It was no wonder his grandmother hadn’t bothered to remarry, and he guessed this bad history must also be the reason his mother would never allow his own father to be a part of Alex’s life. Whoever that man had been. She would never say.

He considered for a squeamish moment what his grandmother might be thinking of him as she watched him growing lazier in the summer heat. Did she think it was typical? Just like a Quillen man? Or was it all men? Is that why his mother hadn’t said anything about it? Is that why she never let him have a father? Maybe she thought all men were just as useless as her father had been, all of them useless and lazy. But Alex didn’t feel like that. He wasn’t intending to be lazy his whole life. He wanted to be lazy that summer. He figured he had his whole life to be a grown-up. So why hurry? Why not enjoy it while he could? But what if that’s the way all bad men think? What if you just keep thinking that way, all the time, forever?

Alex’s departure had not gone undetected. His mother’s footsteps crunched the gravel in the turn-around in front of the bays. The light was so weak that she had to get within a few yards to be able to see him. “I thought you might come here,” she said. She pulled the other chair off the wall and sat beside him in the growing darkness. “You know, your grandfather used to sit out here like this, too.”

Alex didn’t exactly like hearing this might be an exclusive behavior of Quillen males. “Did you sit with him, too?”

“Sometimes. And sometimes I’d sit here by myself, after he was gone.” She paused, and he thought he heard her snort, like she did when she smiled at something kind of funny or kind of naughty. “Sometimes it’s good to get away from your mother for a little while, isn’t it?”

That wasn’t what he was doing, though. “I guess it’s good. Maybe not always.”

“That’s true. I’m trying to focus on the good part, though.” It was getting difficult to see her in the fading light, but she was turned to face him. “It’s hard to recall only the good parts out here in this place, but it’s nice that you’re here, now, Alex. I can’t tell you what it means to me right now to see you sitting next to me in that chair.” She put a hand on Alex’s shoulder and then ran her fingers through his hair, just past and over his left ear. It was a touch she often used to soothe him when he was younger, and it usually made him feel safe and comfortable. This time, though, he couldn’t help but feel that somehow it wasn’t meant so much to comfort him but instead to comfort her.

Now he didn’t want to sit out here in the dark anymore. “I guess maybe we should go inside, though. I guess I need to get up early if I want to help Gramma.”

It was too dark to see his mother’s eyes, but he heard her take a breath and let it out. “Yep. That sounds good.” They put the chairs away and started the walk back home. He’d begun to feel too old for it lately, but she wanted to hold his hand, and he let her this time. It was dark, after all, so no one could see it. And it was kind of comforting.


The next morning at seven, he sprinted over to his grandmother’s backyard, meeting her as she was beginning to pull out the equipment to finish the fence and start stripping the garage. She frowned at him, but he’d decided not to rise to any of her baiting. While she finished the fence, he took the ladder and started scraping and peeling the old paint off the west side of the garage, the side with the most weather damage that would be blistering hot in a few hours, saving the north and south sides for the afternoon when there would be shade. He worked until lunch and then afterwards went out alone and finished the rest of the building on his own.

While he was scraping and scraping and scraping, many times his arms and shoulders and legs would tire, and he’d take a break and think about what he was doing. As he watched the yellow chips flying off the boards and fluttering and twirling and diving onto the grass around the garage, he wondered how deep he’d have to scrape to get all his grandfather’s paint off this building. And how many of those flakes belonged to his mother, when it was just her and her own mother left to do the whole job themselves? He wondered if that was why his grandmother had been scraping so hard when she went at the boards herself the day before. He wondered if she did this every five years just to freshen up the paint or because she wanted to get rid of every last vestige of that man if she could. Or maybe he wasn’t in her mind at all. She’d kept the ladder and chairs and plywood, after all. She was nothing if not a practical woman.

He and his grandmother hadn’t said much to each other all day, but in the late afternoon when Alex was done and putting the ladder back into the garage, she came out to survey his work. She squinted in the brightness, shielding her eyes with her hand as the sun beat down on the scraping he’d done that morning on the west side. “You do good work, boy,” was all she would say about it. “There’s storms coming on, so make sure you get everything inside.”

The next morning, they started the painting, but they both stopped at lunchtime because the sun was too hot. When they resumed the following morning, his grandmother stopped them after they finished the western side. “I don’t know if we’re laying it on too think, or if the boards are soaking it up more than normal, but we’re about out of paint. I’m going to have to send your mother to the store to get another gallon, I reckon. Maybe two, just to be safe.” She had a few marks of cream-yellow paint on her checks and nose. “About time to quit for the day anyhow. You think you can get your mother to go to the store this afternoon?”

He was committed to the project now. He told her he’d see to it. After helping her put away their tools, he ran to tell his mother about their chore.

He never wondered why his mother had to be the one to go buy the paint. He just assumed it was one of the things that his grandmother was set in her ways about, and sometimes she delegated tasks to his mother. He went along to the hardware store, feeling as though he wanted to see out this aspect of the project, too, and when she asked the service man to mix up two more gallons of Gin Fizz, he didn’t even notice, really, what she’d said. But as they were riding home, his mother asked him, “Did you overhear what the paint color was?”

He repeated it for her.

“Now, this might seem a little strange, but do you think you can keep that to yourself?”

“Sure, I guess.” He shrugged it off, and then, when they got home and they carried the paint inside and he watched his mother popping the lid off one of the cans and smearing paint over the words “Gin Fizz” that the paint-mixer had helpfully written in grease pen, he understood what was going on. “You mean, Gramma doesn’t know that the fence and all is painted in Gin Fizz?”

He didn’t know what the “fizz” part meant exactly, but he knew about gin. He started to laugh at the thought of his grandmother surrounding herself with this color of paint named after booze—so much righteous indignation over liquor, like when she insisted that she would disown them both, him and his mother, if he was allowed to go on a school-sponsored trip for all the year-long honor roll students to a theme park because the park was sponsored by a beer company. He started to guffaw dramatically, but when his mother turned to look at him as if he’d just interrupted a funeral, he stopped himself. “I know it seems funny to you,” she said with her teacher’s gravity and self-possession, something he rarely saw at home, “but this is serious, Alex.” She secured the lid with some well-placed hammer blows, set the can on a porch step, and invited him to sit beside her.

He was already feeling repressed. “Why? I don’t even know what ‘gin fizz’ is.”

“It’s a cocktail. An alcoholic drink with gin and lemon juice. And I don’t know why your Grampa chose this color. Of all the colors to choose. I don’t know if he meant it as a joke, or if it was just a coincidence. But she’s always loved this color, ever since the day she saw it. That’s what she told me. She had Daddy paint the whole house this color, even the little garage and some of the lawn chairs we had when I was little. You know she likes cream-colored things.” She did have a number of yellow or cream-colored objects in or around her house, including wall paint, curtains, bed linens and coverings, dresses, shoes, hats, and the interior of the car she drove. “He knew she liked things that are lemony and citrus colors. I like to think that he just picked a color she liked regardless of the name and then tried to hide it from her for her own good. So she wouldn’t have a fit and reject it for the silliest of reasons.”

“What’s her deal with that anyway? I thought she was just like that because of Grampa. She was like that before, too?”

“I believe so. Her daddy’d been a bit of a drinker, too, and when her mother died kind of young, she had to care for her daddy and sisters, and it made her kind of bitter.”

Alex had never before considered his grandmother being any age other than as old as she was then. Even when he’d been imagining her as this newly-wed with a new house and husband, he saw her as wrinkly-faced and gray-haired. But she’d been a little girl once, and her mother had died, and she’d had to move into her aunt’s house, and she’d had to deal with a drunk father and two younger sisters who weren’t responsible to the mistress of the house like she was—he’d heard this history before in bits and pieces. Now he saw it. He saw that girl. He saw them trying to get away with all manner of foolishness, and how she would straighten them out, make them be a respectable family, make them mend their ways—or she’d have her foot up their asses.

“So, your Grampa had me go along with him the last time he picked up the paint for her. He let me in on the joke then. He was tickled by it. I was little, but I remembered. We had to keep it a secret. We had a lot of secrets.” He looked at her then, but she got up and moved to stand in front of him. She grabbed the handles of the two cans. “Let’s go drop these off and let her know it’s done so she won’t fret over it.” Before they left the yard, she stopped. “And we’ll keep the name to ourselves?”

He was suddenly uncomfortable with secrets. Keeping secrets was maybe another male Quillen characteristic he didn’t want to inherit. Still, he nodded. He didn’t want to make trouble.


The paint went up, across each board and down the posts and around the windows. In one way or another, he’d touched nearly every board of the garage, and a lot of the fence, and it was all covered now, all of it, with his own layer of paint, and he knew it was all Gin Fizz.

His grandmother was unquestionably pleased when they were finished. “It sure looks a darn-sight better now, don’t it?”


“Sure does. A darn-sight better.”

They went into the house, and although the air-conditioning made the ninety-degree weather feel even stickier by contrast, they decided to take their celebratory glasses of lemonade out into the yard and sit in the shade behind the house and look on the sunbrightened results of their week-long efforts. They’d both downed a full glass and were settling into their second when a sick feeling took Alex’s stomach. He thought it might have been too much lemonade too fast, but when he closed his eyes, what he saw was a dark garage filled with secrets.

He held his tongue for as long as he could, but he saw no end to this discomfort. He had to make it stop, and he felt it wouldn’t stop until he’d gotten out from under the shadow of at least the one secret he knew about. “I heard about something the other day,” he said, believing he was being delicate and discrete. If he’d had a beard to stroke or a pipe to hold in front of his nonchalantly squinting eyes, he would have effected these poses. Instead, he plowed ahead with a quavering voice. “Have you ever heard of a drink called a Gin Fizz?”

His grandmother made no move at all for several moments. She didn’t even appear to be breathing. She looked straight ahead at the fence, same as she had been before he uttered those contemptible words. Finally, she took a sip of her lemonade and continued to look out into the yard. “I take it you did in fact accompany your mother to the paint store.”

He nodded, but she wasn’t looking at him, so he said, “Yes.”

She took another sip. “I know all about that. Yes, yes, yes. I know all about Gin Fizz.”

The truth had emerged from the darkness, but it hadn’t lightened his stomach. Now what had he done? Had he betrayed his mother? He hadn’t meant to do that.

“Your mother thinks I don’t know. Is that what she told you?”


“Her daddy probably told her that. But he’s the one who told me. Never trust the memory of a drunkard.” She looked at him now, and he saw the color of her eyes was a lighter brown than his or his mother’s. He’d never noticed that before. He may have never really looked until then. “Told me a few times. Trying to hurt me. Your mother was too little to know anything about any of it. He’d do a lot things and not remember. Or claim not to.”

They were quiet for a while, and Alex felt calmer in the silence. So she knew. She’d known all along. “You’re okay with Gin Fizz?”

She pursed her lips, like she was about to spit. “That don’t mean nothing to me. It’s just a dang color name. And look at it.” She pointed her glass at the fence. “Your granddaddy weren’t good for much, but he knew his paint.”

“Why didn’t you ever tell Mom then?” He was growing upset again, this time because it was like she was keeping a secret from them. “So you could make her keep buying the paint?”

“No, boy. She buys the paint because she thinks she’s keeping a secret for her daddy. It ain’t got nothing to do with me. But I never have told your mother because she never has asked me about it.”

“Shouldn’t we tell her?”

“What for, boy?”

“Because.” The truth was self-evident. He didn’t know how to explain it. But she didn’t respond to him and didn’t seem likely to. His stomach was no less sour, and he didn’t like the idea of these secrets at all. There were too many secrets. He hated them. It was too much to hold in. “Because secrets are lies. You’re just lying to her. You’re not telling her the truth.”

His grandmother took a sip from her lemonade, ruminating on the matter. “Boy, sometimes things just ain’t that simple.”

“Yes they are,” he said. But after he thought about it, he asked, “What do you mean?”

“They ain’t that simple. It ain’t just about lying and such. I can’t explain it to you. You’re too young to understand. It ain’t your fault that you’re too young, so don’t go on belly-aching about it. But there’s some things that are best left dead and buried. They ain’t secrets so much as they’re just dead history, and just like you don’t go digging up dead things to prove they’re still dead, you don’t go bringing up old dead history just because you want to feel good about yourself. Am I making myself clear, boy? It ain’t a secret not bringing up stuff nobody wants to talk about. It ain’t lying.” She took a breath. “It’s just common decency.”

He knew now he’d been right all along about the garage, no matter what his mother had told him, no matter what his grandmother might think of it. They’d be better off without that man’s garage, just like they were better off without the man himself. But they wouldn’t rid themselves of it. They’d live with it, and every five years or so when its ugliness threatened to reveal itself, they’d scrape the ugly away and paint over it, cover it up, and make it look like they loved it. Even invent excuses for it. Make you feel bad for even suggesting there’s anything wrong—oh, no, there’s nothing wrong here, nothing dark or ugly to see here. Look how pretty it is now, shimmering in the sunlight. No one’s ever going to know what darkness is inside it. As long you don’t say anything about it and embarrass everybody.

“I don’t understand,” Alex said into his sour glass of lemonade. But it wasn’t true. He was beginning to put it all together, beginning to understand exactly how it works in a family with secrets to keep. In fact, he was already playing his part, trying to fool himself and his grandmother, saying what he wished was true. “I just don’t get it.”

“I thank the Lord for that.” His grandmother leaned back in her chair, a rare contented smile warming her face, and closed her eyes against the brightening reflection of the lowering sun. “The Lord knows if it were up to me, boy, you never would understand.”




Eric BrittinghamEric B. Brittingham was born and raised among the soybean fields of downstate Delaware, and now lives and works as a technical communicator in northern Alabama. He is currently working on a novel that further explores the lives of the characters in this story. This is his first published work of fiction.





by Dawn-Michelle Baude


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Guru ___ Weird Person ___ Friend ___ How important is truth in your life? Very important ___ Somewhat important ___ Not applicable ___ Do you listen to other’s people’s advice? ___ Do you often give advice? ___ Is your advice taken? ___ When is the last time you pulled the bed away from the wall and vacuumed? (Month/Day/Year) ___ If you need to find an important document, is it readily obtained? ___ How do you prefer your technology? Wearable ___ Pocketable ___ Disguised ___ Implanted ___ When you buy something, is sustainability important? ___ Price? ___ Reliability? ___ Convenience? ___ Brand? ___ Looks? ___ Hormones? ___ Do you judge people by their appearance? Within 3 minutes ___ Less than minute ___ Before I see them ___ Do you consider yourself stylish? ___ Marginal? ___ If called upon to voice your opinion in front of others, would you clear your throat? ___ Pause before speaking? ___ Blurt right out? ___ Who do you most want to overhear talking? ___ Do you have enemies? ___ Recent? ___ Old? ___ Ancient? ___ Antediluvian? ___ Do you play Ping-Pong? ___ Badminton? ___ Sniper Team? ___ Have you ever bought a product because you saw it advertised on TV? ___ Were you disappointed? ___ On a scale of 1 to 10, rate the accuracy of your news feed, with 1 as accurate and 10 as biased: ___ What news section do you read first? International ___ Pornographic ___ If you had to go one direction and one direction only, would you choose north, south, east, or west? ___ What is your favorite word? ___ Least favorite word? ___ List your favorite books and authors: ___ Not applicable ___ Do you have, or have you ever had, a lover with an interest in Feng Shui? ___ What was the first thing you smelled when you got up this morning? ___ Finish this statement: The world is getting: Way worse ___ Much better ___ It depends on my meds ___ Do you pick your nose in your car? ___ Are you virgo intacta? ___ Have you always been? ___ How often do you evaluate your appearance in a mirror: Several times per day ___ Several times per hour ___ What specifically are you looking for? ___ Have you ever lost consciousness in public? ___ What is the last thing you remember before you went blank? ___ Have you ever been Rolfed? ___ Cupped? ___ Visited a psychic? ___ Thickness of ectoplasm: < 1 inch ___ < 2 inches ___ Gooey ___ If you could be anyone other than yourself, who would it be? ___ The whole person, or just particular parts? ___ On which side of your scalp do you part your hair? ___ My hair does not have a sidedness preference ___ Are you easily flattered? ___ Average number of compliments received: ___ /day. Please rate your understanding of events outside your personal sphere: Excellent ___ Good ___ Fair ___ Poor ___ Not applicable ___ Do you like attracting attention? ___ Are you sensual? ___ Erotic? ___ How often do you think about sex? Now ___ Daily ___ Weekly ___ Monthly ___ Yearly ___ Never ___ Date of your last orgasm: ___ Are you most often shy? ___ Arrogant? ___ Resigned? ___ Predictable? ___ Repressed? ___ Liberated? ___ Joyful? ___ Anxious? ___ Combative? ___ Calm? ___ I am mutating constantly and refuse to be pigeonholed ___ Have you ever been assaulted by an archetype? ___ Please describe: ___ Is the past less important than the future? ___ More important? ___ I do not believe in linear time ___ How often do you search for your keys: Daily? ___ Monthly? ___ What keys? ___ What do you regret most about your life? ___ Is your guilt hereditary? ___ Acquired? ___ Viral? ___ Describe the best experience you’ve ever had in a stadium ___ In a park ___ In a bathtub ___. Have you ever been caught in an awkward moment? Please describe: ___ How many hours do you sleep per night? ___ Open-mouthed? ___ Close-mouthed? ___ Is your auditory, visual, tactile, gustatory, olfactory, magnetoceptive, or “Sale’s On” sense more acute? ___ If you were given an apple, orange, walnut, or boiled cabbage to choose from, which would you select? ___ Would you eat it or contemplate it? ___ Please complete this statement: ___ is the reincarnation of ___ Would you say that your speaking voice is an asset? ___ How do you feel about long silences in a conversation? Relaxed, because my interlocutor is considering my comments ___ Paranoid, because my interlocutor is plotting against me ___ Are you encumbered by consumerism? ___ Number of storage units leased ___ Have you ever used dental floss in a public setting? ___ Rate your grooming skill: Above average? ___ Average? ___ Why bother? ___ How many times do you wear the same underwear between washings? ___ Have you ever considered buying the soap powder ERA? ___ What is your favorite charity? ___ Tragedy? ___ Have you ever pondered the nature of meaning? ___ Have you ever been forced to wear a corsage against your will? ___ An electrode? ___ Do you eat the fatty portion of your steak? ___ Do you swallow it or spit it out after the chew? ___ Have you ever drunk milk out of a cardboard container? ___ A plastic container? ___ A breast? ___ What vitamins and minerals would you consider taking on an empty stomach? ___ Please rate your interest in nutrition: Fanatic ___ Moderate ___ It depends on how hungry I am ___ Have you ever walked into a department store and wanted to buy more than you could afford? ___ Did you get an exchange slip? ___ How often do you exceed the speed limit? ___ Park illegally? ___ I am on parole and never break any laws ___ Have you ever ordered something in a restaurant that wasn’t on the menu? ___ Was it really good? ___ When is the last time you went to a drive-in theatre? (Day/month/year) ___ Was it for sex? ___ For the movie? ___ Because you love your car? ___ Is the statement “nothing is permitted to retain its form” by Pythagoras? ___ Attributed to Pythagoras? ___ Falsely attributed to Pythagoras? ___ Consider the situation in which two people hail the same cab simultaneously. Are they fatally attracted? ___ Fatally repelled? ___ Indifferent? ___ Do you feel at home in a cowboy hat? ___ Do you massage your chakras? ___ Do you massage the chakras of others? ___ Do you know where your water comes from? ___ Who do you love? ___ Who have you crossed off your list for good? ___ Who deserves a second chance? ___ Have you ever been afraid alone on a street after dark? ___ Has breaking news ever made you weep? ___ Which artistic lineage would you claim? Objective ___ Subjective ___ Have you ever seen the big picture in any discipline? ___ Please describe: ___ If you had to earn your degree all over, you would study: ___ Please list the drawbacks to this reader profile: 1)___ ; 2)___ ; 3)___ ; 4)___ When did you first encounter beauty? ___ Do you consider yourself: Analytic? ___ Synthetic? ___ What do heliotrope, cerulean, and cochineal have in common? ___ What do you prefer: Complexity? ___ Simplification? ___ Can you rephrase the question? ___ Are you pronouncing this in your head as you read? ___ Who is speaking? ___ Have we met? ___ Consider this sentence: “In a didactic text, the tendency is toward infrastructure.” What is meant by the word “infrastructure”? ___ Where is Herschel’s Garden? ___ The Ampullae of Lorenzini? ___ In 500 words or less, recount the best story you’ve ever heard: ________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________


Thank you for your participation.




Dawn BaudeDawn-Michelle Baude is an international author, educator and Senior Fulbright Scholar. The author of seven volumes of poetry (Finally: A Calendar, Mindmade 2009), two volumes of translations (Vision of the Return by Amin Khan, Post-Apollo 2012), three art catalogues, three communications books, and one children’s book, Baude has written for Condé Nast and Newsweek International, as well as various literary and art sites. Formerly of the American University of Paris, she has lived and taught widely in Europe and the Middle East. She is the art critic at the Las Vegas Weekly.

Forthcoming Poetry: Interim magazine, http://www.interimmag.org

Literary Criticism, “Making Strange” in Please Add to This List: Teaching Bernadette Mayer’s Sonnets & Experiments”: (Tender Buttons, 2014) http://www.tenderbuttonspress.com/products/buttons-al-undone

Literary Translation: Vision of the Return by Amin Khan (Post Apollo Press, 2012): http://www.postapollopress.com/vision-of-the-return/

Contributing Writer (art writing), Las Vegas Weekly: http://www.lasvegasweekly.com/sitesearch/?q=baude

Photo by Shane O’Neal




by Ron Yates



Uncle Bart was my mother’s only brother. Growing up, I’d seen him maybe once a year at family get-togethers, and I had noticed that he seemed to be aging faster than my other seldom-seen relatives, who remained sleek and fat between reunions. I had the opportunity during the last holiday season to spend some time with him while he was up from Florida visiting my mother, ostensibly on business although I never knew the specifics. I was getting ready for my final semester at the university and trying to think about the future. By this time Bart had become wizened and unkempt, full of irony, anger, and malicious humor, like Nick Nolte in his role as Father in Hulk.

My dad had died from a heart attack the year before and my sister had married and moved away to Birmingham, so Bart’s presence in the house was not as inconvenient as it might have been. He was there for a week. I kept an apartment near campus, but during the break, I was in and out a lot, enjoying time spent relaxing in my childhood home and helping Mom get through the holidays.


Having this other male presence in the house was strange at first, sleeping in my sister’s old room, shuffling through the kitchen in the mornings in pajamas and slippers, watching TV in the den with us, and taking his meals at the kitchen table. I soon realized that I hardly knew my uncle Bart and was surprised to find a sense of humor and gentlemanly demeanor underneath his gruff sarcasm. After a few days, Mom and I both were enjoying having him around.

The three of us talked about politics, the economy, and the Middle East, but he didn’t talk about himself much. Mom and I knew, although it was never stated, that he had no one to spend Christmas with. He had divorced four wives without producing any children, and the divorces weren’t amicable. The most recent had occurred just this year, contributing significantly to his overall contemptuousness.

“Melba was a goal-oriented person,” he commented one morning as we were finishing up breakfast. “That’s what attracted me to her initially. Problem was, her goal shifted from accruing personal wealth to my ruination. Damn near succeeded too.” He took a drag off his Doral light, leaned in over his coffee mug, tapped his cigarette fingers to his gray temple. “I’m not as gullible as she thought, though. I had some holdings in Tampa and PC that she didn’t know about. I landed on my feet, as I’ve managed to do over the years. But, enough of that. Tell me about your plans for the future, what you hope to do with an English degree.”

Of course, I wanted to be a writer, like most everyone who majors in English. I hated telling people that, though, especially adult men who’d made lots of money. I didn’t like their patronizing looks of mild amusement or their admonishments of, “Well, yes, but you’ll need a back-up plan,” so I usually said that I planned to teach or get into advertising or public relations. Bart’s reaction, though, was not what I expected. In a sincere voice he added before I could answer, “Naturally, you’ll want to write.”

From the counter where she was rinsing plates and putting them in the dishwasher, Mom said, “Yes, but he needs a back-up plan. I’ve been telling him he should get his teaching certificate. He could get on at a high school close by and maybe even coach baseball. I don’t know if you remember, Bart, but that boy used to love baseball.”

He looked across the table at me and winked. Yes, he remembered, and I did too, the warm Thanksgiving afternoon we’d spent in my maw-maw’s backyard playing catch while my great-uncles, aunts, and cousins sat around eating desserts and watching TV. He had sensed my boredom and initiated the conversation, which led to an intense session of glove-smacking burnout. “I hear you’re a pretty good pitcher,” he had said from a front porch rocker. You’ll have to show me what you got someday. I used to pitch myself, might could teach you a few of my old tricks.”

I was twelve and shy, but my boredom and his seemingly genuine interest prompted an adventurous reply: “I’ve got a couple of gloves and a ball in the car.”

He hopped up out of the rocker, and we ignored the grown-ups for the rest of the afternoon as he devoted his considerable energies to throwing and catching with me. Then it was time to go, and when I saw him again I was a teenager and everything was different. Things were really different now, in the kitchen with Mom, Bart looking too decrepit to even play catch anymore. He took another drag on his cigarette then suffered a minor coughing spell. “I’m gonna quit these damn things one of these days,” he said as the spasm subsided.

He got up and shuffled to the counter to pour more coffee. “Of course, Ann,” he said to Mom, “he’ll need a steady income, insurance, retirement, and so forth, but if he’s got that writer thing in him, he’ll need to get it out somehow. I think he should throw some energy into it now while he’s young. Who knows, it just might lead to something. With talent, good material, and a little luck, a person can still make it writing and publishing.” He sat back at the table and looked at me. “I’d like to see some of your work. I was an English major too, you know.”

I didn’t know and, mildly surprised, told him so. “Oh yes,” he said, shaking another Doral from the pack. “I read all the classics, got especially interested in the American greats, from the Naturalists through the Modernists: Crane, London, Sinclair Lewis, Sherwood Anderson, and of course Hemingway. He was my hero. I wanted to follow in his footsteps.”

“So what did you do with yours? English degree, I mean.”

“Oh, I never finished. I only needed a couple of quarters—we were on a quarter system back then—when I decided to take a break. Went down to Florida, got involved in some business ventures, and one thing led to another. Never made it back to school. Kept reading, though, and thinking about it—for a long time.” His voice trailed off into despairing reflection.

I said, “Well, it’s never too late. I’ve had classes with lots of people your age. They’re called ‘non-traditional’ students—”

“Believe me, kid. It is too late for me. It’s your turn now, to shine, to make your mark in the world. We’ll talk about it more later, after I read some of your stuff.”

My part-time employer, Java Chop, a coffee house and deli near campus, had called me in to work that day, so I decided to swing by the apartment when I got off to print out a copy of my latest story. The working title was “Eb and Flo, a Love Story about Nothing.” It was an account of two androgynous characters who lead nondescript lonely lives, caring for their pets and following set routines until their chance meeting in a coffee shop. They each begin to organize their lives differently, to facilitate more “chance” meetings. They are slowly drawn into each other’s world, and through their coffee-shop dialogue, the reader follows them on their journey to completeness. I was pretty proud of it and eager to show it to someone. Although I had doubts about Uncle Bart’s critical skills and ability to appreciate what I was trying to accomplish, I hoped he would like it.

When I handed him the manuscript after supper he appeared confused for a moment. As the recollection of our morning’s conversation dawned, he said, “Oh, yes. Well now, this really looks like something. I can’t wait to read it.” He set the pages on the end table as he settled into an evening in front of the TV with Mom, watching their favorite investigative crime dramas. The next morning I noticed that the manuscript had been moved, but Bart made no mention of it during breakfast. It was the first weekday after the New Year holiday, and Mom had errands to run, gift returns mainly and an appointment for a pedicure. She seemed eager to get out of the house; instead of our usual bacon and eggs with grits, biscuits, and a full array of jellies, syrups and jams, we had Eggo waffles and microwaveable sausage patties. As we ate and chatted about the weather and how bad the traffic was likely to be, I sensed Bart’s eyes on me. I felt sure he had read the story and was examining me for structural flaws, signs of weakness that he was preparing to reveal.

I began to dread the moment of Mom’s leaving, of being left alone with him, and I tried to think of an excuse to leave with her. As she was putting on her coat and checking her purse to be sure she had the receipts, Bart looked at me. “So, it seems we have some time on our hands, alone, like old bachelors. An opportunity to . . . discuss things.” He raised an eyebrow diabolically, like an evil professor, then grinned. “I enjoyed the story. I’m impressed with your talent.”

Mom said, going out the door, “Bye fellows. You two try to behave while I’m gone. I’ll be back late this afternoon.”

When I answered, “Bye, Mom,” a small spasm of apprehension passed out of my body. He had said he liked the story, that I had talent. I surprised myself with how much this mattered, and I worked—at that moment and at times throughout the morning—to not let my need for his approval show.

He pressed the door closed behind Mom. “C’mon, let me pour you another cup of coffee before we get started.” As he shuffled across the floor in his slippers and baggy pajamas, I noticed his grizzled whiskers, his gossamer hair charged with static and standing off his head, but I also saw a light in his blue eyes I hadn’t seen before, a disconcerting impishness. “Let’s sit in the den,” he said, “where we’ll be comfortable.”

He disappeared for a second as I tried to relax in my usual chair. When he returned he was holding the “Eb and Flo” manuscript. He tossed it onto the coffee table and sat across from me on the sofa. “You’ve got some pretty good chops. On a sentence by sentence level this is right up there. It’s musical, lyrical, metaphorical, and all that. Your transitions transition and you’re able to do what all writers struggle with: move people in and out of rooms. But . . . the story is still lacking. In spite of your good writing, it’s a flop.”

I exhaled heated air from my burst bubble. “Well, thanks, I guess. For being honest—”

“But don’t despair. I’ve got what you and all writers need, material. I’m giving you a gift today, the gift of narrative thrust. Conflict, action, suspense, tension, drama—that’s what it’s all about.” He eased back into the cushions, reached for his cigarettes and lighter. “You might want to take notes.”

* * *

Back in the seventies Uncle Bart had been a student at the same college I attended. Aaron-Maslow had a wild reputation then, the number one party school in the state. He had begun as a serious student, a lover of literature with writing skills he hoped to develop. He attended on a full-ride scholarship—baseball and academics; he was full of promise and optimism in spite of the toxic political climate of that era and the increasing scope of domestic and international disasters. But after three years of college life—the stress of playing ball, staying in shape, and keeping up his grades in a cornucopia of sex, drugs, and rock and roll—he found himself on academic probation, no longer on the baseball team, and broke.

He was tall and good-looking with thick blonde hair to his collar and a mustache. He had managed to stay away from the heavy drinking, pot, and other drugs throughout his freshman year, but with lots of pretty girls and a party somewhere every night, the temptation became too much for a young man who had previously led a sheltered life. His hair grew, his manner of dress changed, and he formed new friendships with people who weren’t so hung up about grades and sports.

Bart had seen Davis around campus and had even had classes with him but didn’t get to know him until one night in May when he found himself at a party where the lithe and swarthy hippie was the center of attention. Upwards of 100 people—an assortment of freaks including students, faculty, and dropouts—had gathered at an old farm house a few miles outside of town. People were drinking and laughing on the porch, in the yard, and in clusters throughout the rambling structure. The main hive of activity, though, seemed to be back in the kitchen. Groups kept moving in and out of there in huddled discussion over loud strains of Led Zeppelin. Bart guessed the reason for the activity, and his theory was confirmed after he edged his way into the room to get another beer out of an ice-filled tub. Davis was leaning over the high Formica-covered counter, his straight black hair pulled back in a pony tail. He was flanked by a seriously interested group that seemed a bit younger than the rest, probably freshmen, two girls and a chubby guy with pink cheeks. Davis was holding forth, laughing, cutting his eyes from one to another, and showing them something on the counter. He was providing reassurance; then Bart saw them make the exchange: money passed into Davis’s hands, then swiftly into his jeans. The chubby guy said, “Thanks, man.” Davis responded by wrapping his arms around all three. “You guys are beautiful,” he said. “Enjoy, and let me know when you need more.”

Bart, hanging around the beer tub, became interested in watching this guy work. They exchanged glances once or twice as Davis displayed his charm through a steady stream of customers in groups and pairs, some excited and some apprehensive. There were lots of girls at the party and most of them at some point made their way to either Davis and his place at the counter or the beer tub. Bart, maintaining his vantage point, soon found himself in conversation with a hippie girl, breathtaking in her beauty.

She had reached into the tub, pulled up a dripping longneck, then tossed her head to settle her shag haircut back into place. In response to Bart’s stare, she smiled, flashing her big hazel eyes at his. “Hi. You keeping watch over the beer?”

“Oh. Yeah, I guess. This is an interesting place to stand. All the cool people end up in this room at some point. Here. Let me open that for you.”

He reached toward her bottle with an opener. She met him halfway and held the bottle firmly while he popped the top. Moving closer brought a slight misalignment in his mind. Her appearance suggested an herbal, organic smell, but her fragrance was more like expensive Parisienne parfum.

“Thanks,” she said with another slight head toss. He noticed the silver hoop earrings shaking against her fair skin. Thickly layered strands of hair the color of polished white ash swooped over her ears then followed her slender neck down between her shoulders. She smiled and let her eyes linger on his face for a moment. “So, when you say ‘cool people’ are you including that long-haired dude over there at the counter?”

“Sure, why not? I mean, he’s been the most popular guy at the party ever since I’ve been here.”

“Hmm . . . that’s interesting. Any idea what his secret is?”

“Not sure, but I’d guess he has something other people want.”

“Hmmph!” She knitted her brows in mock seriousness. “You don’t suppose he’s selling drugs over there do you?”

“Well, since his jeans pockets are stuffed with cash, that seems a definite possibility.”

She sidled a step closer and lowered her voice to a whisper. “What do you think he’s selling?”

“No idea. Something twisted up in tiny little plastic bags.”

Someone in the other room put on a new album and they became aware of the beginnings of a much gentler tune, quiet acoustic guitar and lilting vocals, then the chorus: “Skating away-ay, skating away-ay, on the thin ice of a new day-ay-yay . . .”

“Far-out!” she said, “Tull.” She sucked in her lower lip, half-closed her eyes, and moved her head to the flowing rhythm. “Ian Anderson’s a genius,” opening her eyes to his. “What do you think?”

“Great, I love Tull!” As soon as he had spoken he felt that he had let too much excitement show over their having such a small thing in common.

She nodded and smiled, glanced back to Davis, who was relaxing between customers at the counter. “I think I’ll mozy over and see what this guy’s up to.” She turned and he watched her walk away in her cut-off jeans and clog sandals.

A couple of guys he knew came into the kitchen with bags of ice and another case of beer to replenish the tub. Bart exchanged pleasantries and helped with the task. When he stood up and looked over at Davis and the girl, he saw that she was leaning into him, his arm around the small of her back, lifting her short denim jacket and exposing a pair of dimples just above the top of her hip-hugger shorts. With a hand against his chest she pushed herself away and turned, smiling, to look at Bart. With one arm around Davis’s waist, she motioned with the other for Bart to come over. Making the few steps across the room, Bart noticed that Davis was also smiling at him, as if they were complicit in some scheme that was just beginning to hatch.

The girl said, “You were right. This character has been up to no good. I interrogated him and he confessed.”

“Guilty as charged, your honor,” Davis said. “Question is, what are you gonna do to me.”

She grinned. “Help you spend the money, of course.” She nodded toward Bart. “He had you pegged all along. He’s an undercover investigator, you know.”

“Undercover . . . that explains it, why I’ve seen him hanging around the student center in the afternoons, and carrying books in and out of the library.” He smiled warmly, looked at Bart with eyes the color of dark chocolate. “Now that you’ve nailed me, I guess you should know my name.” He reached out his hand. “I’m Davis.”

Bart took the hand in the accepted thumb-locking hippie grasp. “Bart. Pleased to meet you.”

He looked at the girl. “I don’t know your name.”

She tilted her head causing one hoop earring to dangle, the other to lie against her neck. “Mary. Simple and easy to remember.”

They drank and chatted in the crowded kitchen, mainly about the assorted characters who continued to come and go. Mary was animated, doing most of the talking. Several times when partygoers approached Davis with furtive glances and veiled questions, he shrugged his shoulders, smiled, and held up empty hands. Mary asked, “Are you all sold out?”

“Almost,” he answered, with an implication in his eyes.

She said, “Uh-huh,” then turned to Bart. “So, what did you say you were majoring in?”

“I didn’t. Haven’t had a chance yet.”

“Let me guess. I’d say you’re of a practical turn of mind. And you have a sadness in your eyes for all that’s been lost. And your body—” she eyed him up and down—“suggests physical robustness. I think you’re someone who climbs around on mountainsides and in valleys digging up rocks, looking for fossils. You, my new friend Bart, are a geology major.”

Bart chuckled. “That’s a very interesting guess. Your insightfulness is staggering. But, unfortunately, you’re not even close.”

“She does that all the time,” Davis said. “She guessed somebody right last year at a party and hasn’t been able to stop since. She is a great judge of human nature. Now, if she could only match the natures up with the right humans . . .”

She laughed and pressed against Davis. “I figured you out pretty quick, though, didn’t I? I guess that’s what really matters.”

“Well, you’re right about me being what matters most, but I’m not as transparent as you think. There are some nooks and crannies in my psyche that you haven’t peered into yet.”

“There he goes, talking about his psyche. Davis is a psychology major, as you might have guessed.”

Bart said, “I would have never known. I’d have placed him in the business department. He seems to have mastered the laws of supply and demand.”

As they laughed, drank, and smoked their cigarettes, Bart noticed the mood of the party changing. Movement and noise subsided, replaced by a subdued camaraderie. Pink Floyd oozed from the speakers. Mellow. Joints were circulating everywhere in the smoky house, and people seemed content in their various groupings, engaged in deep conversation. “Our work here is done,” Davis said. “Why don’t we split, get out under the stars and enjoy the great outdoors.” He looked at Bart. “Come on, Man. I’ve got some things to show you.”


It was indeed a beautiful night, even when viewed from the inside of Davis’s old pickup. The three of them rode together through scenic rural areas Bart had never seen before. The truck, a Dodge from the 1950’s, was battered and noisy but seemed eager for the changing terrain, the washed-out curvy blacktops and steep hills. They turned onto a dirt road that after a few miles became barely passable. Picking their way over harsh bumps and ruts, they approached a wooden bridge that spanned an energetic rocky creek. Davis eased the truck over the planks, water gurgling beneath them, then pulled over and killed the engine and lights. The trees on either side were black and looming under the full moon. The road was mottled black with shadows, lumpy with rocks and potholes.

They had just finished smoking a very potent joint, and Bart was suddenly struck with a wave of paranoia. What the hell were they doing? Who were these people? Were they going to kill him and leave his body out here? Perform some weird ritual? These thoughts flurried through his guts, producing body tremors he could scarcely conceal. They sat quietly in the truck for a few moments before Davis began rummaging around under the seat. Finally he said, “Here it is,” bringing up something in his hand.

Mary said, “Cool. I’m glad you brought that. Lemme have it.” She snatched the roll of toilet paper from him and nudged Bart with her knee and elbow. “Open the door, dude. I gotta pee.”

He exhaled, almost laughed, and pressed down on the Vise-Grip pliers that served as a door handle. Davis opened his door and got out also. Mary stepped gingerly over the ditch and disappeared into some bushes. Davis came around to Bart’s side and handed him a beer. The air was filled with the sound of running water, crickets, frogs, owls, and other night creatures. They each lit a cigarette and listened for a moment. Davis said, “Snake creek. Cool, huh?”

“Far-out . . . literally.”

Davis slapped Bart on the shoulder. “I’m glad you like my back yard.”

From Davis’s smile Bart couldn’t tell if he was serious or not; then he heard Mary approaching. She handed Davis the toilet paper.

He said, “Why don’t you roll us another joint while I fix up a little something else for us.”

Mary said, “Sure,” and got back inside the truck.

Davis turned his back to Bart and, bending over the Dodge fender, began to make preparations. When Bart stepped in closer, he could see three individual sheets of toilet paper placed side by side. Davis removed his large black wallet, attached to his belt with a chain, and dug deep into one of the compartments. “When I saw how sales were going back there, I decided to stash a little for personal use, enough to divide up three ways, a good number—Biblical, you know.” He placed the small twist-tied package, made from the cut-off corner of a sandwich bag, on the fender. It was mashed flat from being in his wallet.

“What is that, anyway,” Bart asked. “I don’t mess with hard drugs.”

Davis grinned in the moonlight, his teeth flashing white. “It’s not heroin, if that’s what you’re thinking. It’s the love drug, MDA, kind of a combination of acid and speed. It’s great, really mellow. Makes everything all better.”

“But I’m short of funds tonight—”

“Don’t worry about it. This one’s on me. It’s not that expensive anyway.”

“But we don’t really know each other . . . why did you pick me—”

Again the flash of white. “I trust Mary’s instincts. She’s a great judge of human nature, remember?”

Davis’s hands were busy. “Here,” he said. “Hold this lighter up so I can see.” He used the blade of his pocketknife to measure equal portions of the white powder into the center of each toilet paper sheet. He wet his fingers and made three little balls, wrapping the tissue around the drug. The passenger door hinges creaked as Mary climbed out with a freshly rolled joint.

Davis said, “Cool, baby. Go ahead and light that thing up. We’re gonna find God tonight.” He handed Bart and Mary each a little drug ball and kept one for himself. Holding it up just prior to popping it into his mouth, he said, “Shall we?”

Bart glanced at Mary. She winked, swallowed down her drug with a big gulp of beer. He did the same.


He had never seen anything as beautiful as fire, Bart thought later, except for Mary’s face as she laughed and talked inside Davis’s teepee. His was one of five spread out along the grassy banks beside the creek, a little community not far from the bridge where he had stopped the truck. As they had topped the last rise in the old Dodge, bringing the teepees into view, Bart had expressed his surprise: “What the—”

“My front yard,” Davis had said.

“You mean you live here?”

“Yep. Great views, cool neighbors, and really cheap rent.”

Davis and Mary explained, as they parked the Dodge at the edge of the meadow, that Dr. Ostrakan of the psychology department owned the land and had agreed to the teepee settlement as kind of an experiment, a “simple living” collective. The professor didn’t care what they did as long as they didn’t erect permanent structures and took care of their garbage.

“It’s amazing,” Bart said. “That you can live this way. I’d have never thought—”

“It does have its downside. It was great last summer when we built everything, but over the winter things got kinda rough. Some nights we stayed in town at Mary’s place.”

Bart registered surprise. Mary answered, “Yeah, my parents don’t know about any of this. They still pay for my apartment and expenses, thinking I’m the model college girl. If they knew I flunked out this term, they’d shit bricks. I won’t be able to keep it a secret forever, though.”

“Let’s don’t worry about that stuff,” Davis said. “Tonight . . . ,” he made an expansive gesture, “the sky, the creek, us. This is what matters now.”

As the drug dissolved and found its way into his bloodstream and brain, Bart felt a dawning realization that Davis was right, that this—the here and now—was what mattered most. With childlike excitement he helped Davis build the fire, bringing in sticks of wood from the stack outside. Then he watched Davis’s expert hands as he prepared the kindling and laid the sticks just so in the rock-lined pit.

As the fire crackled and popped, the smoke, heavy and slow at first, began to find its way out the top. Mary’s face with the firelight reflected in her eyes, the music of her voice, and Davis’s reassuring smile had combined to produce a feeling of contentment unlike anything Bart had ever known. Now, with the fire burning clean, flames dancing over a bed of glowing embers, the contentment was still there, radiating out to blend with the heat of the fire and the warm souls of his new friends he had met only a few hours before. Amazing. Love, that’s what it was. Bart was experiencing true love—he was sure—for the first time in his life.

The fire melted all reserve between them and for a long time, they shared stories from their lives, their childhoods, hopes, and fears. Mary was the first member of her family to attend college. She had a little brother with Down Syndrome and other developmental problems. Mary had stuttered and been shy as a child but had miraculously blossomed through the loving encouragement of her fifth-grade teacher. Davis was a surviving identical twin. The brother had died in a car wreck when they were toddlers, cracking his head on the metal dashboard. Davis, standing next to his mother in the front seat, had been saved by her partially restraining arm, thrown out just before impact, an arm that had not been strong enough to hold both boys back from death. Davis himself had been cut and broken; he pulled up his tee shirt to show a star-shaped pattern of white scars on his chest and ribcage.

Bart felt that he didn’t have much to share from his sheltered life. He had stayed clean, made good grades, played ball, went to church a lot. Never suffered anything, really, other than the scrapes and bruises of a childhood that seemed too normal. But he wanted to share; he wanted to give them something of himself, so he told about his dream of becoming a writer, how he felt that he was born to do something important, to leave part of himself behind after he was gone. He sometimes imagined books he had authored on library shelves waiting to be discovered by new readers generations from now, and he sometimes dreamed books, but so far he had not been able to capture them upon waking, only bits and pieces he had used to construct stories. He had written several stories he was proud of. He told Mary and Davis they could read them some time, that he would be honored.

They listened. Mary leaned forward, smiling, big eyes looking over the impish flames at Bart. “So now I’ve got it. Your physical robustness is for living and experiencing all life has to offer, to get it into books; the sadness in your eyes is for the human condition and your need to make sense of it. You, my friend, must be an English major!”

They laughed. Davis said, “My God, Mary, you’re clairvoyant! Our very souls laid bare beneath your gaze!”

As the chuckles subsided Mary said, “That’s really cool. English is my minor, majoring in art. Did I say that yet? Was, I mean. Was majoring in art before I flunked out. Anyway, I love to read, and I write poems sometimes. I’m surprised I never saw you in the humanities building.”

“Probably because my classes are always early in the morning. We have to get our classes over so we can spend the afternoons practicing.”


“Yeah, I’m on the baseball team. Was, I mean.”

“Wow, a real jock! But I guess that must be tough. All the responsibility, people counting on you.”

Bart didn’t know what to say.

Davis said, “So, dude, that is cool. I read a lot myself. Who are your favorite authors?”

That got the words flowing again. Bart told about Hemingway and his quest for one true sentence; about Flannery O’Conner and her Jesus-twisted characters; Tom Robbins, his far-flung metaphors and social insight. Each time he mentioned a book or author Davis and Mary nodded their enthusiastic agreement and exclaimed, “Cool!” or “Far-out!” They were readers too, loved Vonnegut and Brautigan as much as he did. The discovery of their common interests was a wave that carried comfort like soft caramel throughout his body, and the night passed, slowly and wonderfully, inside the teepee.

The floor, constructed from planks salvaged from warehouse pallets, was strewn with old quilts, sleeping bags, and pillows; there was a chair, a mirror, and several shelves, one of which held a softly glowing kerosene lamp, another a wash basin. Plenty of fresh, gurgling water running just outside; warmth inside. Cold beer in the cooler, fine Columbian weed in Mary’s batik bag—what else could anyone need?

The sky, visible through the smoke hole, slowly changed from deep purple to gray, and the stars faded. The sedative effect of the beer was beginning to hold sway over the diminishing effects of the MDA, and, after eating roasted wieners and a big pan of popcorn popped on the fire, the three were nearly talked out. Davis turned out the lamp, then began to snuggle with Mary in what seemed to be their usual sleeping area. Bart reclined a couple of feet away, resting his head on a rolled-up blanket.

The fire had burned down to mostly coals now, three charred sticks producing a flickering medley of blue and orange. Bart closed his eyes, but inside his skull there was still much activity. The drug and the night’s revelations allowed only a measure of relaxation; sleep remained outside, a foreigner patiently awaiting entry. He listened to the soft popping and hissing of the dying fire, and from Davis and Mary’s blankets he heard murmurs and whispers that blended with the gurgling of the creek just beyond the canvas wall. From out there he heard frogs croaking as the night slipped away, along with owls, whippoorwills, barking foxes, and an occasional splash in the creek, but these animal sounds were slowly displaced by the sounds of Davis and Mary cooing and caressing under their blankets.

The murmurs became moans of pleasure, then pants and grunts as the couple made love beside him. He was outside their zone of passion, yet he felt a part of it. His pulse was synchronized with their rhythm, and he imagined the sensations of their mounting pleasure. He did not feel shame, embarrassment, or the need to turn away, but rather contentment, lying there with his eyes closed, wrapped in the warmth of the fire, blankets, and love.

As the tempo beside him increased, so did the volume and pitch of Mary’s panting. Their movement became strained, a struggle for release, and Mary yelped with pleasure. Bart felt something stir beside him, then pressure against his arm. Mary’s fingers were pressing, making circles on his wrist. Then her hand found his and squeezed tightly as she stepped over the edge into a free-fall of pleasure. As the grunting and panting subsided, the sounds outside became audible again. Bart drifted off to sleep, holding Mary’s warm, relaxed hand.

Before a week had passed the three of them were on their way to Florida. Davis suggested the move in a way that seemed natural, considering their current academic standing and future prospects. They loaded their most necessary and cherished possessions—amp, turntable, speakers, albums, Native American artifacts, a few pieces of handmade pottery, baseball gloves, camping gear, jeans, tees, and several boxes of Mary’s clothes—under a makeshift camper on the back of the old Dodge and headed south to Panama City. The general idea was to be bums, to sleep on the beach until they could find jobs and a cheap place. They’d be getting there between spring break and the summer vacation rush, the ideal time to seek out opportunities. Davis was persuasive, Mary seemed excited, and Bart was unable to resist.

* * *

Time passed and my Uncle Bart ended up staying in Florida, until the last month of his life, living out his days with sea gulls, the sound of the surf, and beach music in the background. He spent the years getting married and divorced and pursuing a variety of business ventures including night clubs, car lots, and liquor stores from the western end of the panhandle down to Tampa. He did drugs, drank, and smoke until a few weeks after he critiqued my story in Mom’s den, when he was diagnosed with lung cancer, already in the advanced stages. This would be the first spring break in many years that he would not spend on the Gulf.

After an obligatory round of chemo did nothing but make his hair fall out and leave him sicker, Mom contacted the hospice agency. A bed was set up—in my old room this time as it allowed easier access—and Bart was moved in as the dogwoods reached full bloom. He didn’t put up much of a struggle, letting the nurses, Mom, and the morphine have their way. During those last days he seemed to enjoy, more than anything, my company. At first I sought reasons to stay away from the house, a place that was taking on the smell of death in spite of Mom’s opening the windows to the spring breezes, and to immerse myself in work during my last schedule of classes before graduation; but after a week or so of trying to avoid the inevitable, I gave in, clearing my calendar of obligations for several afternoons.

Mom left us alone as much as possible, and we talked about literature and writing, the mysteries of life, and the amorphous webbing that binds us together with everything else in the universe. He laughed and was in good cheer most of the time, but he occasionally drifted off into staring, silent reflection. He was sharing deeply from the well of his collected musings, but he seemed to be struggling to go deeper.

When we had gone down to his beach-front bungalow at the end of the Perdido Key strip, just east of Gulf Shores, to bring him back to Georgia, we left most of his possessions for later and shut up the little house. But he had insisted on bringing a few personal items. There was a thick cardboard storage box, the kind made for holding files and records. It was battered and taped at the corners and the lid was sealed with layers of clear tape. As Mom was packing his slippers, toiletries, and necessary items, he elbowed me and pointed to the box sitting on the floor at the foot of his unmade bed. “That’s coming too. Me and that box have got to leave here together. Go ahead and put it in the trunk.”

I lifted the heavy box as he asked, without thinking much about its contents, and it rode with us back to Georgia. Bart’s final weeks slipped by, and I didn’t think of the box again until the afternoon when he told me to drag it out of the closet and open it up. I pulled out my knife and started to cut through the tape.

“Everything you’ll need is in there,” he said, breathing deeply from the oxygen tube at his nostrils as I pulled off the lid. “The stuff of life.”

The box was filled with notebooks.

“I took notes, kept journals,” Bart said weakly from his bed. “I always planned to sift through it, sort it out into stories and maybe a novel, but . . . I ran out of time. That’s all that’s left of me now. Not much to show for a life, is it?”

I groped for words. “You were a businessman. You provided goods and services. You helped other people to be happy and live their lives. That counts.”

“Goods and services. I guess that’s what it boils down to after all.”

I ran my hand along the spiral backs and cardboard covers, pulling one out into the light. The notebook was labeled in black magic marker on the cover. Neat block letters spelled out the word, “Environment.” The next one in the stack was labeled, “Lust.” I pulled out several more notebooks, each cover printed with a one-word title. Before I stopped and put the lid back on I saw these words: Crime, Jealousy, Punishment, Resistance, Revenge, Deceit, Murder . . . . There were lots of notebooks in there, but that was enough for now. “Wow,” I said, “interesting titles.”

Bart’s eyelids sagged over irises that had grown dull. “Yes. At least I had that. An interesting life. I was never bored, until now. This dying business is starting to get old.” He drifted off into a deep sleep from which he never fully awoke. A few days later he was gone.

After the sparsely attended funeral I carried the box to my apartment and parked it within reach of my futon. When I pulled off the lid, my hand went straight to the last title I had seen: Murder. I had to know if Uncle Bart had been a bad man. I suspected that he had, but, oddly—and I struggled with admitting this to myself—I didn’t love him any less for it. The notebook paper was yellowing around the edges, each page filled with Bart’s legible yet sloppy cursive. I read the first page carefully, skimmed ahead, then went back and read slowly. The notebook was indeed a first-person account of a murder that had been committed in the winter of 1976.

The victim was a sick old reprobate, proprietor of Ray Ballard’s Beachside Motel. He had provided Davis, Mary, and Bart a place to stay in exchange for their help in operating the establishment. The old man had other business interests and a trophy wife in her forties whose needs were not being met and with whom Bart found favor. Davis managed to charm his way into the old man’s confidence: Ballard, after an evening of drunken camaraderie with Davis, showed him a special stash in the maintenance shed that nobody, not even the wife, knew about. The scheme, according to the narrative, was Davis’s idea, but its enactment required Bart’s participation. He kept the wife occupied while Davis got the old man drunk then smothered him in his sleep. The wife was satisfied, upon discovering her husband dead the next morning, that he had died from natural causes. He had been in poor health for some time, and now she could collect the insurance. After waiting a respectable few days after the funeral, the young trio left the widow to her fortune, themselves making off with considerable loot, including boxes of war relics: Confederate belt buckles, bullets, canteens; gas masks from WWI; German Iron Cross and Swastika medals; a Samurai sword; Japanese Nambu and German Luger pistols; and various helmets, patches, uniforms, emblems, and flags. They also got away with a gallon jar filled with silver dollars. No investigation was ever launched.

What Davis, Mary, and Bart did afterward is another story, or maybe several. I’ll have to spend some time sorting it out. I’ll have the opportunity to do that now since Bart’s will named Mom and me as his only beneficiaries. He left her enough to allow for a comfortable early retirement, and she plans to move to Birmingham to be near my sister and the grandbaby that will be here in time for the holidays. Bart left me the beach house and $100,000. I look forward to moving down there after graduation and getting some writing done.




Ron YatesRon Yates received his MFA from Queens University of Charlotte, where he worked with many fine writers and teachers and completed a novel entitled BEN STEMPTON’S BOY, set in the rural south of the early 1970’s. Yates has recently completed a short fiction collection, MAKE IT RIGHT AND OTHER STORIES, a work driven by two key components of his aesthetic: a desire to create crisp, character-driven prose and to evoke place in a way that furnishes and textures the fictional dream.

Yates’s work has appeared in The Oddville Press, Still: The Journal, Bartleby Snopes, Clapboard House, The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature, Rose & Thorn Journal, and Prime Number Magazine.

He lives in a remote area of east Alabama on the shores of a large hydroelectric impoundment and has taught high school literature, creative writing, and journalism for many years.

When not writing, Yates enjoys hiking, taking pictures, tinkering around with old cars and motorcycles, and playing on the lake.